Universities have unique responsibilities as powerful institutions that connect communities, decision-makers and the private sector
This post originally appeared on the Yorkshire Universities website. I am delighted to have recently joined Yorkshire Universities as an Associate.
Last month Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, gave a speech at the University of Sheffield asking if all economics, like politics, is ultimately local. The speech attracted attention for its discussion of whether we can capture and model detailed data on the economy at a far more local level. But there are two other points in the speech worth exploring further.
The first is recognition that higher education, alongside financial services and the creative industries, are sectors that ‘exhibit the highest economic complexity and thus potentially generate the highest value-added’. Economic complexity means the amount of embedded knowledge. Translated into places, a high level of economic complexity means a diverse set of highly-specialised industries, and tends to result in a more prosperous place.
Secondly, Haldane discusses the Bank’s response to the ‘deficit in public understanding and the deficit in public trust’ that central banks are facing. The Bank has responded by rolling out citizens’ panels across the UK, with independent chairs from the local area. Some of this discussion mirrors the public discourse around the role of universities in society, with the flurry of institutions signing Civic University Agreements and reasserting their public missions a reaction to this. The Bank has had a network of 15 regional branches since 1825. Many universities have a long history of civic engagement. There has, however, been a clear need for both to demonstrate this more clearly to those who stand to gain the most in areas which have traditionally been served the least.
Taken together, these two points nicely capture two key roles of universities: generators of knowledge and the economic benefit that can result, and shapers of place and society. I make this point in a recent report for the British Council, noting that these two roles are significant because they challenge different ends of the traditional university mission: research and the so-called ‘third mission’ of economic and social engagement. The report looked at universities and the development of ‘smart’ cities across Europe, concluding that work between universities and city hall often draws on both of these missions, which prove to overlap and reinforce each other. The urgent calls for universities to ‘do more’ for their place, the challenges that local areas are facing, the strengths that universities have, and the work that they are doing, mean there has never been a better time for universities to build stronger links with their LEP, Combined Authority, and Metro Mayor partners.
When partnerships are missing
A couple of days after my report on universities and smart cities was launched, a smart city project in Toronto hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Plans for a Google-affiliated company to redevelop land near the waterfront met with opposition from citizen groups concerned about long-term motives and a lack of transparency. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing three levels of government over its plans to build the smart neighbourhood.
So what went wrong? Clearly a lack of effective citizen consultation – a basic prerequisite for any smart city initiative – is part of the problem. I would also expect any successful project to have at least some involvement of universities. Given the complexity of any widespread urban development scheme, bringing in universities would have been a sensible move (but not a panacea), especially given the excellent work of Toronto’s universities in relation to the development of the city that I’ve explored elsewhere.
If we take all of this together – the value of higher education to local economies, the need to build trust with people who live in these places, and ambitious regeneration projects that go wrong – we are reminded of the unique position of universities as powerful institutions that can connect communities, decision-makers and the private sector. In this connecting position, with an obligation to support all three but beholden to none, universities have difficult decisions to make. Given limited time and resources, these can require tricky trade-offs.
Often universities contribute to activity in local areas where they are not necessarily obliged to act, but in doing so can add great value. One such area is in place promotion and the attraction of foreign direct investment (FDI). Such activity can boost the prospects of communities and businesses (and increase the economic complexity of a place). It is also essential if we are to meet the government’s target to increase innovation and R&D investment to 2.4 percent of GDP. At Yorkshire Universities we are exploring the role that universities are playing, and the further contribution they can make, to increase trade and FDI in Yorkshire. In doing so, we are reminded again of the crucial dual role universities play, as generators of knowledge and shapers of place.
A recording of the smart cities session at Going Global 2019 in Berlin is now available online, including my presentation of the report findings, panel discussion and questions from the audience. You can also find my (admittedly minimalist) slides at the above link.
In related news, University World News kindly re-published my summary of my earlier report on universities, cities and internationalisation here. And if you missed it, the full report on universities and smart cities is on the British Council website here.
.@jc_ransom is talking about the importance of "boundary spanners": individuals who can speak the language of the different partners, such as industry, government and academia. #GoingGlobal2019pic.twitter.com/ExSEymvqPA
Smart city activities with universities at the heart are growing across Europe, but challenges remain
My latest report for the British Council was launched in Berlin at Going Global a few hours ago. The report draws on interviews with nearly 50 university staff and city officials in eight cities from Bucharest to Zaragoza. It sets out how universities can help build successful ‘smart cities’, but also the dangers faced if they don’t get it right. Read it here (link to report at bottom of page).
Here’s the intro:
A simple message runs through this report: universities are needed to help tackle the serious challenges faced by towns and cities across Europe. Climate change and changing job markets are complex problems needing a wide-ranging response. Poor quality housing and pollution have plagued cities for centuries and progress will require new partnerships.
City leaders should include universities in the fight against these challenges, and in the push to build better societies. Cities need to upgrade universities from advisory roles to actively shaping and delivering projects. But the real onus lies with universities themselves. Universities need to align themselves with the priorities of the city, to be proactive in building partnerships, and to make sometimes difficult internal changes to better meet local needs.
Thousands of partnerships, projects and pilots are being delivered across Europe – from multi-city programmes to neighbourhood initiatives, some in places at the top of smart city league tables and renowned for their research and innovation, and others in regions grappling with economic uncertainty. Yet leaders and planners across the continent share common challenges. Budgets are tight, populations are growing, and new threats and challenges are appearing. City leaders are required to think beyond their city centre to the broader metropolitan area, balancing regional and national relationships whilst forging new international links. They shoulder growing responsibilities for their city to tick the latest urban policy boxes – to be resilient, sustainable and smart.
Universities are also under financial strain, and often juggle teaching and research with the mantle of being civic institutions. Whilst many university leaders understand that this civic role – to help coordinate social and economic activity, to be a good neighbour and positively shape the place they are in – strengthens their teaching and research, challenges remain. Universities are being called to seek tighter integration with their environment, to form stronger bonds with local communities, and deliver more effective projects with longer term impact whilst growing national and international networks, all within a complex political arena. Even in places with a track record of local partners effectively working together, new thinking and new ideas are required.
This report takes you on a tour of eight European cities. It explores how universities and city hall are working together to tackle the challenges faced in each city. Each city has a unique configuration of institutions and a different history of collaboration between the city hall and local universities. In some cities, both sides are building on decades of close working, in others universities are balancing a history of state control whilst exploring new opportunities to work with city officials. All eight cities, however, illustrate a broader trend – the emergence of a new wave of smart cities, placing universities at the heart of a more inclusive, human-focused movement to build better places and societies.
Smart cities redefined
In 1975 NASA drew up plans for a colony in outer space. Called Stanford Torus, the colony would resemble a small city – housing up to 140,000 residents, drawing on the latest technology, and designed to be completely self-sufficient. Stanford Torus is worth considering for two reasons. The first is a reminder that we have been thinking about ‘smart’ cities, and how the latest technology can meet our needs, for a long time (the expansion of Barcelona 150 years ago was designed around the telegraph and railroad). The second is the close resemblance between the artist impressions of Stanford Torus in 1975 and promotional visions of the future city when the hype around smart cities hit around the year 2013.
Discussion around smart cities in 2013 was focused on issues of technology, control, efficiency gains and large infrastructure upgrades, and was driven in part by multinational companies. In his excellent book Smart Cities, published around this period, Anthony Townsend described a vacuum between the top-down, technology-heavy solutions for cities promoted by big companies, and the bottom-up but limited-scale grassroots work of community activists.
The smart city of 2019 looks quite different to that of 2013. The utopian visions have mostly gone (as we will see, they tended to alienate citizens). Movements towards ‘smart governance’ and ‘smart citizenship’ have grown, embodied in initiatives such as open data platforms. This ‘second wave’ of smart cities favours incremental improvements to existing infrastructure rather than entirely new systems. The spotlight is on the needs of residents rather than on glamorous new buildings. Technology may play an important part in solving problems, but it doesn’t look like science fiction. And culture and politics have joined the party – the path to the future city may now be a little messier and a bit noisier, but it is also more realistic and more achievable. Accordingly, this report uses a new definition of smart cities: using new ideas and innovations (which might include technology) to improve cities for the people who live, work and visit there.
Townsend predicted that mayors would step into the vacuum between industry and activists and design the smart city of the future. He was right – but mayors and their teams have company. Organisations such as universities can bolster the work of city hall by drawing on the vast amount of research and innovation they deliver, but also working in closer partnership with city hall. This requires universities to concentrate on where they can really add the most value, and for both university and city leaders to pay attention to developing strong processes and structures for collaboration. Universities also work closely with large and small businesses who continue to be an essential part of this partnership. And their work with communities can help ensure a constant focus on inclusivity and participation. This report shows how eight European cities are doing just that.
The National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) launched the Inspiring Entrepreneurship in Education report last week at the House of Lords, capturing the views of 62 Heads of Enterprise from UK universities (I provided the analysis).
The report was covered by Times Higher Education (paywall article), who led with the finding that university support for enterprise in local schools and communities has significantly decreased in the past six years. The full report here (PDF) covers a wide range of activity and indicators, perhaps best summed up by this visual heat map from the annex. The first column is 2018 activity and the second column 2012 data, and greener is better:
The article ends by summing up the report conclusions focusing on local activity:
The report also recommends that universities consider how existing activity and the work of students in particular could engage with schools and communities, and that staff promote the work of local entrepreneurs, in preference to tales of high-profile examples such as Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, to make entrepreneurship seem more accessible to students.
The final recommendation in particular was also echoed by Professor Alison Wolf, Baroness of Dulwich, who also spoke at the event.
Keynote @nceeUK launch from The Baroness Wolf of Dulwich CBE calling for us to profile relatable entrepreneurship role models. It’s our alumni and community leaders who can inspire the next generation
In 2018 I spoke at a workshop on urban universities in South Africa, organised by Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute and South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council.
My slides and related thoughts from the event are on the blog here, but there’s also been a flurry of recent press coverage of the discussions, including good summaries in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian and University World News.
South Africa faces tremendous challenges and opportunities that quickly become clear when looking at the development of the higher education system and of urban areas. For example, issues such as student housing in cities are deeply tied into issues of access, identity and opportunity in society. International Higher Education recently published a good summary (open access) of the forces that have rocked South African universities in recent years, and the impact this has across the continent. And University World News rounded out the coverage of the Cape Town event with two other pieces on universities and development in South Africa here and here, which are worth a read.
Universities willing to invest heavily in opening themselves to the public may find long-term rewards
Most people interested in the role of universities in society would, I think, agree on the following:
Society as a whole benefits from universities and the contribution they make to research, education and local development.
Universities benefit when they work closely with diverse groups of people: communities, businesses, international visitors.
Therefore it makes sense for universities to be as ‘open’ as possible and to exist as spaces and places that make (1) and (2) possible.
Why, then, are many universities pretty poor at putting (3) into practice? There are some that do this well: in the UK, a university in the north east that chose to build a five-a-side football pitch on a piece of prime campus real estate, rather than financially lucrative labs or incubator space, to encourage local youth to play and become comfortable on campus. Or the university shaping its campus to provide a new short-cut from the train station to the city centre, and showing off the work of students and the facilities of the university for all those walking through. Internationally, I’ve written previously about Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Ryerson in Toronto.
But these are exceptions. Many university buildings – at least in the UK – are woefully under-utilised, and security concerns tend to trump openness and access. Tuition fees act as a wall, restricting access to university buildings to those who pay the fees. In contrast you can walk straight into and work within many of the excellent libraries in universities across Europe. Universities should be places for people to meet and ideas to flow, and they need to be open and welcoming environments. Fortunately there are models of excellence to learn from.
Helsinki’s Library Oodi
Last week I visited Helsinki’s new public library – a glistening 98m euro building near the Central Railway Station and spread over three floors. There were several thousand people within the building when I visited, but it didn’t feel crowded. The library’s website tells the story better than I could here, but there are some key points universities could learn from:
The library markets itself as a ‘living meeting place’ that is ‘open for all’, functioning as ‘a living room for residents’. It is truly open – no need to sign up, no turnstiles. As the Johns Hopkins example above showed, when you strip down the perimeter or facade you invite foot traffic and create a safer environment, but you also truly engage (signing up for a free membership may seem inclusive, but there are always parts of society who will be excluded by this).
As such, Oodi reimagines what a library should be for. There are still 100,000 books on the top floor, but the space has been designed from scratch to reflect today’s society. The second floor has an ‘urban workshop’ containing 3D printers, sewing machines, large format printers and computing equipment. There are also meeting and conference rooms, online gaming rooms – all available to the public. Anyone can pick a tablet up from the shelf. There’s a vast amount of comfortable seating – some in quiet zones, others resembling a co-working space. Freelancers, businesses, tourists, residents, students, families are all catered for. What would a university building that did this look like?
There’s a consultation area, where residents can look at models of city plans, view new developments with VR headsets, and provide feedback notes on a giant map of the city. And the building itself was designed with an emphasis on service design and user input.
The basics are all covered. There’s very fast internet (no login), long opening hours, a good restaurant and multiple coffee shops, and full accessibility. It’s big enough to never feel too busy.
One might argue that all this comes at a huge cost – and why give all this away for free (or why should universities provide such services, when state-run institutions such as libraries should do so). But there’s a real competitive advantage to be found from being the provider of such a space – the ideas that can be generated, connections made, and the long-term engagement with community that could help break down some of the barriers in society. It’s an investment in a place and people – a gift that pays interest in stronger relationships into the future.
There’s also a high degree of trust involved in completely opening doors to all (which I think the UK struggles with more than some of our European counterparts). What if crime skyrockets, or people decide they don’t want to pay for study when they can use facilities for free? Risks indeed, but my guess is the more people that flow through from all parts of society, the lower the crime. And the more people who see what such an institution can offer, the more they are willing to support it.
What university strategies and a psychology experiment from the 1940s have in common
Writing an effective strategy for local engagement is difficult.
Read through the following statements, taken from a UK university’s strategic plan, and see if anything looks familiar:
As a vibrant knowledge hub, we have an important role to play both locally and globally. The university is a large employer and economic contributor in the region.
We aim to build a clear and distinctive reputation for excellence through strategic engagement and communication with our regional, national and international communities.
We will help the region address its challenges and opportunities while incorporating its many possibilities in education and research.
Could this be from your university’s strategic plan or external engagement strategy? I actually lied at the start: these statements aren’t from a single university. They’re a jumbled mix of statements from five universities from across the UK nations, and from various mission groups. But if they look familiar this could be a problem.
A Barnum effect?
Speaking at recent events, I’ve asked the audience – mostly of higher education professionals – whether these statements about engagement could be from their strategic plan. Nearly everyone raises their hand.
This reminds me, perhaps a little uncharitably, of the Barnum effect. Emerging from a series of psychological experiments in the 1940s, the effect involves showing participants – for example, a class of students – an individual personality statement based on a handwriting sample or a piece of written work. Statements include:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
Because the assessment statements are so vague, people interpret their own meaning, and the statements become personal to them. Nearly all participants believed their assessment to be uncannily accurate.
There is a growing expectation for universities to be regionally engaged, and this follows from a recognition of the role universities can play in their area and with local communities. The interest and enthusiasm around the Civic University Commission is evidence of this.
This local role isn’t new. Many universities have had engagement as a core part of their mission since their founding. But in recent years government has focused on the role of cities and regions in devolved policymaking, as well as the institutions, such as universities, that can help steer this.
As regional plans – from City Deals to Local Industrial Strategies – shape the policy environment university planners need to factor the issue of place more highly. Often, however, the result is strangely place-neutral: a series of engagement strategies and university planning documents that are largely indistinguishable from one another.
Place, positioning and partnerships
There are positives to be drawn from my (admittedly unscientific) scan of university engagement strategies. Many recognise how the local and international activities of universities reinforce each other. Universities are bridges for their towns, cities and regions to reach the world, and this offer to connect the local and the global is made loud and clear.
In my work for the British Council on universities and cities working together on internationalisation, I found that effective planning was built on a deep understanding of place, positioning and partnerships. It is long-term, deliberate and part of a wider vision of the future of the local area. Universities often have a clear sense of their positioning, but articulating this in the context of place and partnerships can be tricky.
University strategies are not the place to detail individual activities and actions. But a greater degree of specificity is often needed, and this is likely to mean dropping some of the broad statements to focus on a few areas of institutional strength, perhaps joining up with other local universities.
Rooting strategies in place, positioning and partnerships is a good start. The Civic University Commission’s progress report notes that measuring civic engagement is not widespread (but does highlight Cardiff University’s use of quantitative and qualitative analysis). Further work on this is also important.
So too is taking a longer-term perspective. Many universities proudly promote their anchor presence in their area, but their plans are often on five or ten-year cycles. The city of Amsterdam has a 200-year strategy. Although this is prompted by climate change (as an official said, “we don’t want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany”), thinking about what a university strategy spanning one or two centuries may look like is perhaps a useful exercise.
A test when looking at your university engagement strategy: if you remove your institution’s name, and mix it up in a pot with other anonymised strategies, is it clear which strategy is yours?
Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning
The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:
As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.
This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.
These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:
In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.
The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:
The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.
But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.
Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.
This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!
Looking beyond the financial benefits of university engagement
Over the past couple of months I’ve given several presentations on university engagement in cities (slides below from a workshop in South Africa). One of the things I like to test with the audience is a sliding scale I’ve developed1 of why universities choose to engage with local communities, businesses and other organisations:
1. Financial incentives 2. Government push through policy (e.g. for knowledge transfer) 3. Branding; demonstrating social relevance 4. Enlightened self interest 5. Public/local/civic duty; (rediscovering) a historic mission 6. A strategic ‘urban turn’
The theory is that, over time, many universities have moved from point one – choosing to engage locally because of perceived or actual financial benefits – to point five – a sense that engagement is part of the duty of the institution. The route is rarely a straightforward journey through all five, and in the messy reality of day-to-day engagement many stages will look remarkably similar.
Between financial incentives and civic duty we have universities responding to government policy pushes (point two), described well by the likes of Rhiannon Pugh and colleagues regarding initiatives such as Growth Hubs in the UK.
Point three – engagement as a means to improving an institution’s branding and demonstrating social relevance – is often a scrambled response to universities coming under fire (usually from the press) for being societally irrelevant or out of touch.
Enlightened self interest, point four, is the recognition that the fortunes of a university are often closely intertwined with the health of its locality.
Point five is having civic duty at the heart of the university mission. This is garnering a lot of attention in the UK through the likes of the UPP Civic University Commission but, for many universities, is aspirational at present.
Point six I’ve written about extensively on this blog. It combines points one to five, and proposes that the relationship between universities and cities is evolving. For some universities, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity. There is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city – for example university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones – and institutions looking to take advantage of the globalisation of urbanisation and responding to the narrative over the ‘rise of cities’ and their interconnectedness. At the same time, universities themselves become vehicles for cities to achieve their goals – but I’ll save this for another post.
With many influences, who shouldn’t be held accountable for my findings. Much of this thinking was prompted by an article by van Schalkwyk & George de Lange (The engaged university and the specificity of place: The case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the journal Development Southern Africa) and their call for ‘the delegitimisation of one form of university-community engagement that values exchange with external communities for the financial benefit of the university (and is tenuously linked to the core functions of the university) and the institutionalisation of a form of university-community engagement that values place-specific development (while simultaneously strengthening teaching and research).’ A second nod to the work of Jean-Paul Addie at Georgia State University (and convener of the Cape Town workshop) whose research on rethinking the urban university has been particularly influential. ↩
Cities and universities each have pockets of internationalisation and collaboration that can be mapped. The result is a heat signature: unique for each pattern of universities and place.
Back in 2017 when I was presenting my work on internationalisation for the British Council at conferences I would ask the audience to picture in their minds a big map of a city they knew and to shade in red the areas where there was most international activity.
For most cities, the deeper shades of red would be in the centre of the city: the central business district, the tourist hotspots, the shopping streets and, often, a university (especially if it bears any resemblance to Hogwarts). There could also be ‘pockets’ of internationalisation in more marginalised areas where universities set up a summer school, ran public events, built student residences or held community engagement activities.
The thinking was that universities could help bring the benefits of internationalisation to these ‘cold spots’. I’ve been thinking about the concept of a heatmap of university-city interaction in more detail and sketch out some initial thoughts below.
What is hot?
Beyond international activity, there are many other interesting dimensions a heatmap could capture. A basic map may capture any initiative between universities and city hall, between universities and businesses, or between universities and communities or community organisations. Darker shading may represent scale of activity or depth of engagement or a longer history of working together.
Less tangibly, it could represent informal collaboration, or any activity where the university reinforces the goals of city hall or supports communities, or vice versa. Activity that undermines other actors might emit a chilling shade of blue; a warming red means partners working towards similar goals.
Heat could represent individuals participating in higher education or people otherwise engaging with a university – from attending a public lecture to using sports facilities. It could capture the flow of these people to and from their home or workplace and the university, showing how their engagement is shaping transport use and public spaces. Movement patterns will differ from university to university and each tell a unique story (Toronto’s universities are jointly studying the travel behaviour of 600,000 students).
Instead of mobility, the flow of money or investment in and out of universities could be measured. In doing so we would veer into the territory of university impact studies and input-output analysis. Given the limitations of such studies, a heatmap approach with added contextual data may offer a more complete picture of regional impact. A broader impact heatmap may look at perception data or a combination of economic, social and cultural measures.
A map could show ownership. Most obviously this could be the land and buildings owned by the universities (perhaps a more granular version of this data from the UK showing the dominance of the Oxford and Cambridge estates). In cities that have a degree of ‘ownership’ of institutions (through regulatory controls or funding mechanisms) the degree of autonomy could be mapped.
Or we could (try to) map where collaboration or engagement is less or more than expected. This mirrors nuanced higher education participation data produced in the UK (my post on that here) which maps the proportion of young people participating in higher education compared to that expected given GCSE-level attainment and ethnic profile. How we measure or define what is expected given the different make up of cities and universities is an interesting question, and leads us nicely to…
Heatmaps offer a nice visual representation of the heterogeneity and complexity of both universities and cities. ‘The city’ is made up of countless constituent parts, and it is similarly difficult to generalise ‘the university’ as a single actor. Even the most outward-looking university will have departments and teams with strong engagement with people outside the institution and others which remain mostly insulated from outside.
We can apply heatmapping to universities. Here’s the organogram for Hungary’s University of Physical Education (ranked highly in Google Image Search), with a completely fictitious heatmap applied that could apply to international or community or business engagement. You can get even more detailed: within each unit you could shade each individual. And university structures change over time, and in turn so does the heatmap shading. You could do a similar exercise across a map of the campus.
A unique heatmap signature
Every city and every university will have a unique heatmap ‘signature’. This is partly affected by the structure of the city itself: a heatmap for Paris would look very different to London or Dublin or Baltimore or Toronto. A long history of city planning, the decisions of millions of individuals and thousands of businesses and organisations, political and cultural and social and economic forces lends urban areas a unique fingerprint. In Paris social housing is concentrated in the banlieues or suburbs that form a ring around the centre of the city, whereas in London social housing is woven into the fabric of the city. The result can be intense spots next to each other, or softer scattered blobs.
Universities are actors that make decisions but simultaneously are themselves shaped by wider forces. Dublin City University is in a historically poorer part of the city whereas Trinity College Dublin is right in the centre, forging their own unique heatmap signatures. In Toronto the four main universities have very different footprints and very different heatmap signatures. In London, three universities that may be seen by some as institutionally similar are engaging in vast campus expansions in new areas of the city. The heat signatures for UCL, Imperial and Kings College London will show a new, emerging concentration of heat in their new campuses, a second centre of gravity which – depending on what you are measuring and the success of their developments – may over time have implications for their existing sites, the surrounding areas and all the bits in-between. London South Bank University is focusing on working with local partners such as further education colleges in the borough of Southwark; again, the signature for LSBU would look quite different to UCL. Precisely where you are located matters.
Heatmaps may also be a good way of visualising activity on the ‘periphery’ – a focus of recent academic inquiry from higher education to smart cities.
Is there a dark side to universities?
Not all university impact and engagement is positive. Complaints may be relatively trivial – from students taking over too many houses to making too much noise or not paying enough local taxes. But they can also be more serious criticisms: universities that exacerbate ‘existing cleavages of class and race’ in the race to redevelop and expand their campus, or otherwise reproduce wider inequalities in society. Such conversations often emerge when universities embark on urban regeneration projects – a prime candidate for heat mapping – and the debate often intersects with wider discussions of gentrification and community identity.
The Guardian explored some of these issues earlier this year in coverage of Johns Hopkins University’s ambitious development plans in east Baltimore. The piece quoted several locals:
“This is gentrification, a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit,” says Lawrence Brown, a critical urbanist who teaches in the school of community health and policy at Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically black university… Marisela Gomez, a physician and activist in the fight for fair treatment of displaced residents, is blunter. “Every community that’s black and brown and low-income in Baltimore is at risk.”
There’s also an acceptance that the city needs the university. “We need Hopkins to succeed, because that’s the anchor institution in east Baltimore” says the leader of the ‘Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development’ group. And the university recognises the interdependence of the university and the city: “It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline”.
Needless to say, mapping such interactions needs to be supported by broad contextualisation. And ideally mapping would reflect some other, significant, changes taking place, such as a blurring of the edges around the campus:
With fences, skywalks and forbidding facades broken by loading docks, the medical campus sent hostile signals to its surroundings, and got hostility in return. Assault and theft were common; beggars set up at traffic lights. “Fundamentally it was a hunker-down strategy,” [Ron] Daniels [president of Johns Hopkins University] says. “The traditional thinking was that the best way to protect the university was to ensure that its perimeters were effectively controlled, and that you were creating safe zones within them.” … By contrast, the new office and lab buildings in the EBDI [East Baltimore Development Initiative] feel like they welcome – and want to generate – foot traffic. It is nothing fancy: ground floor retail, some steps and patios, small setbacks creating spaces to meet and gather.
There are other limitations. Maps can be stubbornly one-dimensional: they often show a fixed point in time, whereas patterns will change from day to night and times of the year. Unless they can show effectiveness or durability or inclusivity there is a risk of giving the illusion of successful engagement; some projects could create bold heat maps despite having largely negative effects.
With the development of ‘smart cities’ you can, in real time, transpose data onto the map. Although sensor information may show supposed engagement, the data is technical and the metrics unlikely to accurately reflect social realities. Maps need to capture phenomena such as ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality.
Lastly, consideration should be given to how to represent regional, national and international dimensions. To pick just one facet of international links, universities that are close to global flight hubs perform better in league tables, and cheap flights mean more research partnerships; similarly places with a direct flight to Silicon Valley raise more venture capital. But these links won’t benefit all people in the city or parts of the university and a heatmap could help us consider how benefits can be spread further.
If you want yet more reading, here’s a short article recently published by NCEE where I set out the long-term focus universities can bring to planning.